Pope Francis greets a young child during his General Audience in Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City, on June 30. (L'Osservatore Romano / European Pressphoto Agency)

THREE YEARS ago, Pope Francis charted a new course in compassion for the Roman Catholic Church when, in response to a question about gay priests, he asked, “Who am I to judge?” This week, “I” became “we.”

The question is: If a person who has that condition, who has goodwill, and who looks for God, who are we to judge?” Francis said in an airplane news conference Sunday. The pope’s choice to switch from the singular to the plural was promising in itself. But Francis went further. “I think the church must not only apologize . . . to a gay person it offended, but we must apologize to the poor, to women who have been exploited, to children forced into labor,” he said.

Empathy for the oppressed has always been a hallmark of Francis’s papacy. In this case, the pontiff has acknowledged that, at times, the church has been and can still be the oppressor — whether by discriminating against gay people, treating women in its ranks as second-class citizens or preaching clerical celibacy while protecting child abusers in the priesthood. His comments show a long-overdue willingness on the part of the church to grapple with its troubled past and to try to do better in the present.

Of course, doing better will require more than just words. At synods and other church gatherings, Francis has forced conversations on contested issues the Catholic Church had been dodging for decades — from homosexuality to divorce to contraception. But he has not developed doctrine that would change the status quo. Even an initiative to try bishops who sheltered pedophile priests in a Vatican tribunal has stalled — though Francis announced last month in an apostolic letter that those officials should be removed from office.

The church has a long way to go, and Francis is responsible for getting it there. But already he has offered more to the gay community than has ever been offered before. Certainly, Francis has split sharply from his predecessor, who as a cardinal called homosexuality an “intrinsic moral evil.” And words alone can force at least some change: Pope John Paul II, for example, is credited with helping inspire the Polish people to shake off Soviet control. Francis’s rhetoric could inspire Catholics around the world to change their own communities.

In his closing address at the 2014 Synod of the Family, Francis urged church traditionalists to open themselves to a “God of surprises.” The surprises the pope has given us so far have been more than welcome.